MixedThe Washington PostI’m not convinced by Harden’s thinking on education. Medicine, however, is a different matter ... I happen to share much of Harden’s ideology, and I wish her well ... both the right and the left will find much to object to in this book. The resulting fracas might have been useful had she achieved what she set out to do—establish the fact of genetic unfairness and develop prescriptions to overcome it—yet she does not deliver on her second goal. Harden’s book is a thought-provoking read but in the end demonstrates only the incredible difficulty of using empirical data, both genetic and environmental, to level the educational playing field.
Michael J Behe
PanThe Washington PostThe lesson that Behe and his intelligent-design supporters should learn is that in the face of scientific ignorance, it’s more productive to keep working than to punt to God as the solution ... Like his creationist kin, Behe devotes his time not to giving evidence for intelligent design but to attacking evolutionary biology ... Behe’s theory, promulgated by the Discovery Institute, Seattle’s intelligent-design organization, does demand support. Who, exactly, is the designer, and what evidence is there that this designer makes nonrandom mutations? Is the designer an immaterial god, in which case we need to know how this god violates the laws of physics by causing mutations, or is the designer material, like a space alien, in which case we must understand the physical methods whereby aliens change our DNA? ... It’s no surprise that Darwin Devolves was published by HarperOne, the religious, spiritual and self-help division of HarperCollins.
MixedThe Washington PostQuammen is right that the horizontal transfer of genetic information does complicate our effort to understand the evolutionary past, but he goes too far in claiming that HGT essentially undermines any and all attempts to reconstruct the evolutionary past ... Quammen’s thesis is contradicted by one of the important discoveries he highlights. Horizontal gene transfer is most common in microbes, but evolutionary reconstruction still works for them ... But what about the situation in complex, multi-celled species like our own? As we’ve learned from recent work, HGT is much less common here ... In the end, Quammen provides us with a lucid guide to a lot of interesting science, but he overstates the impact of horizontal genetic transmission on our ability to reconstruct Darwin’s diversifying evolutionary tree. Today, that sketched-out tree of Darwin still looks good, even if, à la Quammen, we should add a couple of faint dashed lines showing HGT between its spreading branches.
PositiveThe Washington PostHis approach is dangerously encyclopedic — my copy of the book weighs several pounds — because he chooses (rightly, in my view) to combine the history of the field with a detailed account of current developments ... [Zimmer] does a good job of avoiding the encyclopedia trap, larding his account with plenty of colorful stories. At times, however, he does get mired in overly long stories while trying to give the book a folksy feel ... The strength of the book, then, is its combination of accuracy, journalistic clarity and scientific authority ... Zimmer’s book is an excellent way to get up to speed in these areas, but be aware that there are a couple of recent competitors that give much the same information.
PanThe Washington PostI’ve been an evolutionary biologist for nearly half a century and have read hundreds of books about Charles Darwin and his science. If we exclude books written by creationists — a group that A.N. Wilson doesn’t identify with — Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker is by far the worst. Appalling in its sloppy arguments and unrelenting and unwarranted negativity, its most infuriating flaw is its abysmal failure to get the most basic facts right … That Wilson is the confused outlier among Darwin biographers is easily confirmed by even a cursory inspection of the book, which is replete with factual errors … In the end, Wilson’s book is harmful.
MixedThe Washington PostThe Book That Changed America gives a vivid picture of the intellectual life of Concord, infused not just with abolitionism but with the Transcendentalist philosophy that saw a divine spark within each human, prizing subjective experience over hard facts. Fuller’s story ranges widely and sometimes discursively, including colorful characters ... Unfortunately, Fuller’s engrossing account of the literary and intellectual hub of New England does little to support his thesis that Darwin’s book gave powerful ammunition to abolitionists, ultimately contributing to the Civil War.
PanThe Washington PostSadly, his latest book, The Kingdom of Speech, suffers from [a] mix of sarcasm and ignorance ... Wolfe’s argument ultimately backfires, for the book grossly distorts the theory of evolution, the claims of linguistics and the controversies about their connection. Finally, after misleading the reader for nearly 200 pages, Wolfe proposes his own theory of how language began — a theory far less plausible than the ones he mocks.